Commute: Stephen Wisniewski
03. MUSIC INSPIRATION
Stone Cold Crazy
Here’s the thing: When I was 17 years old, I found an unmarked, dubbed cassette tape in the parking lot of a tiny black box theater in downtown Flint, Michigan.
On the cassette was Metallica’s “One” and “Stone Cold Crazy” – their B-side cover of the Queen song – repeated over and over again, both sides, for the entire duration of the tape’s 60 minutes. Once upon a time, someone made the effort to stand in front of a dual cassette deck and make that two-song mix tape, repeated into infinity, and then lost it in a parking lot. It told me that story when I put it into the cassette deck of my blue 1995 Geo Metro.
I don’t particularly like Metallica. Especially not in 1995, when the Black Album was still part of the soundtrack to every high school dance – hack DJs used it to follow a slow jam like “End of the Road” as a promise that the party wasn’t done rockin’.
But during the early summer of that year, as my junior year of high school was ending, those two Metallica songs were the only thing I listened to.
I was driving back and forth between my parents’ house and Buckham Alley Theater, where I was rehearsing for a play. It wasn’t a very good play. The cast was just me and one other person, and we played angels having a conversation about the pluses and minuses of heaven, and what we thought of the human condition. My position was that heaven was ultimately unsatisfying, and at the end, I make a decision to go back to earth and live as human. I take off my wings, and the last thing I do is to sing a song in my white robe about how excited I am to be mortal again. The song was to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” It was not a good play.
I auditioned for it for something to do; something to drive to; something to bridge the gap between the school year and summer. I was increasingly living in my own head, and my own head was increasingly inhospitable, so I wanted distractions. I had another year of high school left, but in lots of ways, I was already done, already gone. I didn’t really like this play, and I didn’t really like Metallica, but they gave me a reason to be elsewhere, and provided background noise. Those couple of months were all Stone Cold Crazy and New York, New York. They cleared my head, in the way that something you don’t particularly care about can. They were the only soundtrack I had for that moment when one thing is ending and another is going to begin – the strange seasonal twilight when you’re holding on to the muscle memory of one mode of being, while at the same time unlearning it.
Downtown Flint, Michigan in 1995 was an empty place. Empty in an existential, Reaganomics way. Empty in the way cities are in bad 80’s movies, with almost every door and window covered with plywood. It was also empty in a way that made it feel all yours if you were able to be creative there, which I had become addicted to – playing tiny punk shows and now doing black box theater. It wasn’t all ours, of course, but it had the power to make you feel at home in a way that New York, New York can’t. I thought about all that as I drove through Flint in my Geo Metro.
The Geo Metro was not a good car. But it made me feel at home in a way that other cars couldn’t. It was small, and so was I. It was comically small, and flimsy, and so I really had to crank up the cassette player to drown out the road noise.
Stone cold crazy, you know…(dun dun, dun dun)…
I did like Queen, but Metallica sucked all the Queen-ness out of that song in favor of speed. The speed that made Metallica acceptable crossover listening between metalheads and punks is what made a strange, playful song into…something else. Instead of harmonies that come out of nowhere, it’s all cymbal grabs and dive bombs. James Hetfield grunts out “UGH” before the solo, punctuating the chugging, macho thrash. But it’s the only cassette in my car as I commute to and from the theater. It was like listening to nothing, with guitar solos.
Commuting can be a strange place where the space becomes blurred between not liking something, and being kind of into it just because it’s there. You stay on a radio station way too long because you don’t like what’s playing, but fuck it. It’s not terrible, and there’s going to be something else coming up anyway. It’s a space where you become aware of what’s behind you, and what you’re about to do, and those two points are within the same moment that is also not really anything at all – you’re not here, and you’re not there. So fuck it. Wait for the next song. (The next song is always Stone Cold Crazy.)
Oh shit, guitar solo…
James Hetfield: UGH!
(Plays air guitar on the impossibly thin plastic steering wheel of a 1995 Geo Metro)…
Am I listening ironically? I’m not even really listening.
I’m not there. And I’m not really here.